I bought a pottery wheel and several other items from an old potter who is retiring, and among them were these slate throwers’ ribs from Minton’s, the factory where he used to work.
Throwers, who form pots on a rapidly spinning wheel, use these ribs to impart shape and a smooth surface to them. In Stoke-on-Trent the thrower was mainly concerned with the inside shape, and the usual practice was to take the pot when it was firm enough to handle and to impart the outside shape on a lathe.
In Hanley Museum there’s a picture of a thrower, George Myatt, at work at Lockett’s in 1932, with his wife as his assistant, and on the wall behind him there’s a large collection of throwing ribs (below).
In the 1970s Myatt was interviewed by Dr Gordon W.Elliott, who asked him to explain what a rib was.
G.M. The rib is a piece of slate, school slates were always the best, made to represent the inside of the article. They were filed exactly to shape the inside of the article, and the thrower held the rib in his left hand and made it smooth inside. The thrower finished the inside of the article, and the turner shaped the outside. The rib made it that the inside was finished.
G.W.E. Did you make your own ribs?
G.M. Yes, we all made our own ribs because ribs are like pens. It’s very rare that you can use another man’s ribs, very rare.
G.W.E. Is this why so many were inscribed with the thrower’s, or at least, maker’s name?
G.M. Yes, you will find some of mine and some that I left at Wedgwood that have got my name on them.
G.W.E. Was this so that other people wouldn’t take them?
G.M. It was just that you liked to think that if you had a good rib you’d put your name on it. There was one glorious rib that I had at Lockett’s. It was one of very few ribs that I could use straight away, and it had been made by a man name Jess Amison. On the back of it said “William so and so, born so and so, died so and so. He was a good and generous master.”
G.W.E. So you actually used that rib for your throwing at Wedgwood’s?
G.M. I did and it’s at Wedgwood’s now. I wish I’d never left it there.
G.W.E. So what was the usual number of ribs for a thrower to have?
G.M. You had a rib for everything you made. I’d got hundreds. You’ll find that at the back of that picture there’s a wall of ’em. You’d got everything egg cups, vases, mortars, every mortal thing that you made, you had a rib for it.
G.W.E. Were the slate ribs preferred to ribs in pottery? I mention this because some that I have seen were actually made from fragments of plates.
G.M. That was before they had any kind of refined slate. They’d even make them from roofing tiles at one time. I had quite a few of those made of earthenware. Yes, quite a lot in the early 19th century were made of earthenware. They were plates that had been trimmed off and made perfect. You had to soak them before they could be used otherwise they stuck to the clay as it went round.
My Minton ribs date from the 1930s, the same date as George Myatt’s picture, and they give me a physical connection to the old throwers of Stoke-on-Trent. Two of them have the thrower’s name on them: S. Lawley. One – the second from the left in my top picture – formed chocolate cups for Tiffany’s of New York. To me it looks like an outside profile, not an inside one – in my picture it’s upside down in relation to the cup (left) so that you can see S. Lawley’s name on it.
Minton’s were one of the old pottery firms that went through mergers before winding up and disappearing completely. They had a grand history and produced top-class work over a long period. After the Franco-Prussian war of 1870, they recruited Louis Solon from Sevres, who was responsible for some of their finest work.
By the 1930s much pottery in Stoke-on-Trent was cast in moulds, but throwers were still employed. In this film from 1935 about the making of silver jubilee mugs, a thrower starts the process by forming a rough pot on the wheel. It’s then dropped into a mould and shaped in a jolleying machine. In this case, the thrower doesn’t have to work precisely but he has to work at speed. He has a helper who forms the ball of clay for him and lifts the pot off the wheel; he centres the clay, opens it out, pulls it up and cuts it off, all in seven seconds. That’s 480 cups an hour – over 3,000 a day if he can keep it up that long.
Stoke-on-Trent throwers were faster and better than studio potters. As a child, I was fascinated by the BBC TV interval film of the potter’s wheel, which may have sparked my interest in pottery, but looking at it again recently I realised that the potter, George Aubertin of the Compton Potter’s Art Guild, was actually a rather bad thrower. More recently, at the exhibition Anarchy and Beauty: William Morris and his Legacy, I saw a film of Bernard Leach throwing and was surprised to see how slow he was, although a bit of a show off. Leach’s best pupil, Michael Cardew, also appears in this film to be slow and laboured.
The Stoke-on-Trent throwers and the studio potters had little to do with one another. In the 1970s George Myatt was completely unaware of studio pottery. His comment on the decline of his trade was, “Today I think there’s only about four or five throwers in England.” Actually, there were hundreds, but he could run rings round them all.
Paul Atterbury and Maureen Batkin, The Dictionary of Mintons, ACC Art Books, 1999
Gordon Elliott, Potters, Leek: Chernet Valley Books, 2004
Fiona MacCarthy, Anarchy & Beauty: William Morris and his Legacy, London: National Portrait Gallery, 2014_______________________________________________
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